Suzanne Fields

There he was, a man making a serious run for the White House, taking questions from a panel of women who were used to talking about their hot flashes on national television. Barack Obama lopes onto the stage -- tall and handsome, like a basketball star, but in a jacket and tie as if to keep the girls from fighting over his letter sweater.

This is the television show The New York Times describes as "an estrogen-intense zone," an updated version of the kitchen table coffee klatch, where women get together to gossip over the latest public fad and private foibles in their lives. They're usually flustered when there's a man around to hear what they're saying.

But this morning, the ladies are flattered, not flustered, purring and eager to prey. "I'm skinny," their guest says, "but tough." When Barbara Walters tells him he's "sexy," he makes a fan of his hand and blows on it, suggesting they all take a moment to cool off.

My, how the times have changed. We've come a long way since Harry Truman played the piano at the National Press Club in Washington with Lauren Bacall arrayed seductively above him atop the upright. When Bess Truman caught him in the black and white photograph on the front page of the newspaper the next morning, she was not amused. She told him sternly there would be no more public piano recitals. It was the brief encounter at the Press Club, not the music, that was off-key. Harry got the message quickly enough. Bess, as the president was forever telling everyone, was "the boss."

Today it's easier for Obama to flirt with the ladies, parrying soft questions, than to submit to tougher stuff on Fox News Sunday, which displays the number of days, hours and minutes since he declined the network's invitation to take questions. Hillary submitted to the ordeal and fielded questions gamely. But who wouldn't rather take kisses from Barbara Walters than an arm-twisting from Chris Wallace?

Obama is clearly at ease, patting Joy Behar's arm resting on the back of the sofa they share. There are smiles all around, with little jokes, coquettish smiles, warm bonhomie and lots of ladies' legs on display. When Fritz Mondale introduced Geraldine Ferarro as his running mate a quarter of a century ago, they stood awkwardly together, neither knowing exactly how to script the body language. Cartoonists played mercilessly with images of Gerry as Blondie and Fritz as Dagwood. She was the henpeck-er; he was the peck-ee.

Modern candidates and their interviewers -- male and female, male and male, female and female, gay and gay, and not sure -- hug each other with abandon in the mandatory post-modern protocol. Touchy-feely doesn't project innuendo as it once did. "We're all French now," one wag puts it, watching American men and women greet each other with a kiss for both cheeks. Fuzzy, if not necessarily warm.

Candidates always have to play against stereotype, and the assumptions over appropriate gender roles challenge public perceptions. How these assumptions play out tells us how the candidates see their strengths. The Clintons are the quintessential "two-career couple" in public, reinforcing each other's persona, but in private it's hard to imagine how that works. It's the aging feminists, armed with experience and resignation, who accept Hillary's domestic compromises to keep the family hearth habitable. The younger women despise the compromises, contemptuous of Hillary for making them. No one has to ask who wears the pants suit

When one of the ladies on "The View" asked Barack Obama whether his wife Michelle would sit in on Cabinet meetings and lace their pillow talk with advice on policy, he replied that their children are her first priority and she holds no political ambition. If she becomes the first lady, she will devote her public time to encouraging the creation of happy, healthy families. With her Ivy League education and Harvard law degree, she's fully as formally educated as Hillary and Obama, but there will be no offer to "buy one, get one free." The Obamas hold to the old-fashioned, time-honored, ordering of roles now.

The body language of dealing with the opposite sex is easier for Obama than for Hillary. He can embrace; she's constrained in straight laces. He's sexy and she can't be; she can only complain of being bullied by the big boys.

Sexual politics, like sex and politics, is about power relations and relationships. It's all about who's on top.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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